Can a Dionysian revel be improved with a little Apollonian logic? Or it is always good to round off a day in the library with an evening in the bar.

A couple of years ago I visited Nicolas Joly’s vineyard at Coulée de Serrant in Savennières, the Loire Valley, France. His wines are well documented as being some of the greatest, most intellectually pleasing, white wines on the planet. Joly is also one the wine world’s most vociferous exponents of biodynamic agriculture. And he is rather odd.
When Joly and I walked out into the vineyard, passing the long-horned cows, I immediately noticed a row of Tuscan cypress trees at the far end of the vines. Their slim height was such a physical contrast to the row upon row of low-growing vines that the whole vineyard seemed to be transformed into a three-dimensional space. My eye, instead of looking down to find out about the soil, the rock and the vines roots, travelled up to the sky and sun above me. I became aware of the air and the rain.

I wondered aloud about the trees and Joly explained that he had planted them because he divides plants into ‘Apollonian’, or sky-reaching like the cypress trees and ‘Dionysian’ or falling to the soil, like the vines. He wanted the trees to balance the energies in the vineyard. This may all sounds like a load of new-age psycho-babble but when it translates into wine as good as Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 2005 then I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Besides I’ve always been predisposed to indulge eccentricity.

However to really understand this idea I needed to remind myself of what Apollonian and Dionysian actually mean. When Nietzsche uses these two expressions in Birth of Tragedy he describes them as being:

Apollo (Apollonian or Apollinian): the dream state or the wish to create order, principium individuationis (principle of individuation), plastic (visual) arts, beauty, clarity, stint to formed boundaries, individuality, celebration of appearance/illusion, human beings as artists (or media of art’s manifestation), self-control, perfection, exhaustion of possibilities, creation.

Dionysus (Dionysian): chaos, intoxication, celebration of nature, instinctual, intuitive, pertaining to the sensation of pleasure or pain, individuality dissolved and hence destroyed, wholeness of existence, orgiastic passion, dissolution of all boundaries, excess, human being(s) as the work and glorification of art, destruction.
Or very roughly speaking: intellect v emotion. So how does this translate into wine? Dionysian is perhaps more obvious. It is intoxication, it is en vino veritas, it is the abandonment of inhibitions, hedonism and feasting. But what of Apollonian: order, perfection, exhaustion of possibilities?  If a wine engages me intellectually and does more than just get me a bit tipsy and make me giggle then these ideas are pertinent. If I like a wine because of its aromas and flavours, because it has balance, character and personality, if it is more than just an alcoholic fix, then the idea of a wine being Apollonian is plausible. Anyone who gets addicted to wine because they are curious about how it will taste, where it comes from, how it reflects that place, how it will age, is approaching their glass with an Apollonian head. That fact that this intellectual stimulus comes hand in hand with some Dionysian intoxication is an added bonus. After all a day in the library is always more satisfying if it is rounded off by an evening in the bar.

So back to the vineyard is it possible that a row of ‘Apollonian’ cypress trees can increase the intellectual pleasure of the wine in the glass? I do know that adding other plants, so the vineyard is not a mono-culture, makes it less at risk of disease. I also know that anyone who approaches their vineyard husbandry with this amount of care is going to make a wine that tastes individual and has a complexity that a mass produced wine from a vineyard of uniform plants stretching for miles on sanitised soils can only dream of. I also know that gardens and theatre sets that are three dimensional rather than flat  are more pleasing and all encompassing therefore making them more convivial working environments.

As for a plant being able to channel something as metaphysical as Apollonian energy, I think the idea is so contrary to Apollonian logic that I need some Dionysian intoxication in order to even countenance it. But as I’m currently enjoying a very good glass of Coulée de Serrant, Roches aux Moines 2005, I am starting to get my head round it.

Great food, highly skilled chefs, a ticking clock and judgement day. This is the haute cuisine of TV dinners.

I’m not usually a fan of TV cookery programmes, to me they seem to be polarised into either the ridiculously macho (Gordon Ramsay, Hell’s Kitchen and the two obstreperous numpties who present Master Chef) or the simperingly yummy-mummsy (Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson). Although while on this soap-box I must say that I think Heston Blumenthal is the estimable exception to the usual TV fodder. His food may be impossible to replicate, but his shows are informative (particularly his recent historical series), always highly entertaining and his knowledge and passion for his subject are indisputable. Plus his originality put him in the top tier of Great British eccentrics and that is rarefied ground.

So, Blumenthal aside,  given my usual indifference to telly cooking I’ve surprised myself by becoming addicted, for the second year running, to the BBC series The Great British Menu. The basic premise of the program is professional chefs (many of them Michelin starred) compete to cook a dish at a four-course banquet. Last year’s event was a showcase of modern British cuisine served to a group of the world’s greatest chefs, this year the theme is ‘a taste of home’ and the guests will be service men and women returning from Afghanistan. This may be a BBC/armed forces PR exercise (don’t mention Iraq) however the presentation is admirably un-jingoistic and a-political whilst still paying respect to the risk and hard work that individuals at the front-line have taken.

One of the reasons I like the Great British Menu is the food, not the chef’s egos, is centre stage and while the cooking may be aspirational it is very inspiring. This week Northern Ireland competitor, Danny Miller, served soda farls topped with sautéd chicken livers as a side order to a chicken broth. It looked so delicious and doable that I skipped off to the kitchen and whipped out a skillet. Opposite him three-star Michelin chef Claire Smyth’s comments on presentation and her beautifully refined Irish stew have made me re-think some of my more ‘homely’ concoctions.

There are, however, other dishes which have left me open-mouthed with amazement at the skill involved in their execution: one being Alan Murchison’s caramel globe filled with raspberries and cream and the other being Daniel Clifford’s smoking smoked egg and duck breast starter. I wish I could cook as well as that.

What is also interesting is how the program works as a litmus paper for the fads and fashions of food. Last year’s ubiquitous foams and powders have been replaced in 2009 by smears of sauces. And the cooking method du jour seems to be vacuum packing meat or fish and poaching it in a water bath. I can see that it is a very delicate way of maximising flavours although I wasn’t surprised that the method provoked sneering ‘boil-in-the-bag’ comments from overseeing chef, Richard Corrigan. Own smoking is also popular this year and while I think this would add an interesting flavour component, I imagine it is damn hard to do judiciously.

Thankfully last year’s endless ‘surf and turf’ obsession seems to be waning; surely good fish should be delicious enough by itself without the addition of stewed beef or offal. And on the subject of offal while I agree that the whole animal should be used, and it is hideously wasteful not to use all parts of the beast, there is no need to underline this point by putting the whole carcass on a single plate.

So while everyone on Great British Menu knows they are here for the food, chefs of this calibre inevitable have big characters and true personalities will always out at this level of pressure. One of the funniest unscripted moments was when, after five days of backbiting in the kitchen during the Central England heat, Daniel Clifford proclaimed ‘we have had a friendly week.’ Fellow competitor Glynn Purnell just turned and looked at him.

My favourite characters of the programme so far are: Scottish overseeing chef Jeremy Lee who is erudite, camp and vaguely posh: characteristics rarely seen in a professional kitchen; Richard Corrigan who while overseeing the Northern Irish heat, mugs away to the unseen TV audience, expressing his delight or disagreement and Claire Smyth who is the epitome of calm, preparation and ability.

As for the judges, I suspect that Prue Leith would do a perfectly good job by herself and doesn’t need her two side-kicks Matthew Fort and Oliver Peyton. However Peyton’s sartorial misjudgement alone is worth turning the telly on for and Matthew Fort undeniably knows his scoff although I am sure he is more of an eater than a cook.

So there are another few weeks of Great British Menu to go which means: some great and some ridiculous dishes; more overworked food getting shot down for being pretentious; more seemingly banal dishes e.g. a cheese and pickle sandwich, being transformed into something magical; more over-wrought chefs starting to sweat as they try to pull off seemingly impossible culinary feats and all summed up by ex-royal reporter Jennie Bond’s tweed skirt and no knickers commentary. It is great cooking, great TV and I’ll be watching.

Katrina’s website

The first English cookery book  is about the top table of Medieval cookery.  Surprisingly with a little adaptation its recipes can easily be re-created. Many are delicious.

The Forme of Cury is a recipe collection created by the ‘chief master cooks of King Richard II’. I have been hunting around for a copy of this for a while, so I was delighted to find a copy on-line:

English King Richard II (1367 – 1400) deserves some sympathy as he was just a ten-year-old boy when he was thrust on to the throne. But while he may have been naïve and ill equipped to deal with the demands of leadership he never the less abused his power, robbed his subjects and ordered the deaths of many of his advisors and high ranking officials as well as imposing draconian taxes and laws on his people. He was dethroned in 1399 then imprisoned before being murdered by conspirators in 1400.
During his reign the Monarch squandered vast sums of money on food and feasting. He was the first Royal who opted to eat alone instead of being the centre piece of a courtly dining spectacle, all observed by a rabble of peasants who came nightly to view their King at table. Richard II preferred to eat his gourmet delights away from prying eyes. He ate the best, the most exotic and finely executed food available. His Chief Master Cook had a tough job to fill and he recorded his recipes and achievements in the manuscript The Forme of Cury.

This is a roll call of the recipes prepared for this self-absorbed ego-maniac King. It  is also a unique insight into the best food available in the Middle Ages. It also shows that while the peasant class may have eked out an existence on gruel, at the Royal Top Table, food was imaginative and refined.

What strikes me about The Forme of Cury is that the recipes are actually fairly approachable. The original manuscript was written in Middle English and it is worth looking at this text before reading the modernized version in order to get a sense of the manuscript, a real feeling that this is an authentic historical document.

As for the food itself, some of the ingredients are unavailable, (I simply can’t remember the last time I saw lamprey in the supermarket) others you might not want to cook (I really don’t think cooking swan is worth the jail time) but there are other recipes that can be executed fairly easily and I would encourage anyone who enjoys cooking and/or history to take a look at the manuscript and have a go. (Do post a comment and let me know how you got on!)

Egurdouce Of Fysshe or sweet and sour fish is my favourite so far. This dish is similar to Spanish escabeche or Japanese nanbanzuke: fried fish marinated in a sweet and sour dressing. It is wonderful to see a historical English fish dish that is so creative and delicious. (Note to self: idea for a future blog, how the 16th century Puritan Reformation did English fish cookery up like a kipper.)

So now for a taste of the Medieval:

Egurdouce Of Fysshe.

Take Loches other Tenches other Solys smyte hem on pecys. fry hem in oyle. take half wyne half vynegur and sugur & make a siryp. do therto oynouns icorue raisouns coraunce. and grete raysouns. do therto hole spices. gode powdours and salt. messe the fyssh & lay the sewe aboue and serue forth.

Sweet and Sour Fish (my translation)

Take loaches, other trenches, other soles and cut them into pieces. Fry them in oil. Take half wine, half vinegar and sugar and make a syrup. Core onions, raisins, currants and sultanas. Add to that whole spice, good powders and fish. Plate the fish, and lay the stew about it, then serve it forth.

Sweet and Sour Fish (my 21st Century Version)

500g filleted mixed fish (pollock, salmon, mackerel – good to have a mix of textures)
50g flour to coat
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
100ml white wine
50ml vinegar
100g mixed dried fruit
1 tablespoon of honey
1 large onion
Pinch each of: ginger, coriander, cumin, turmeric, cloves, nutmeg etc (There’s scope to play around here)
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil

Finally dice the onion and sweat in the oil for a good 10 minutes until soft and tender. Add the honey, spices, mixed fruit, wine and vinegar and bring to the boil.
Coat the fish in flour and gently fry.
Place fish in serving dish and pour the sweet and sour marinade over.
Leave to chill then serve it forth.

At the Plaimont St Mont en Fête festival I discovered some wonderful and quirky wines and that the true spirit of carnival lives on.

queennunWhen wine co-operative Producteurs Plaimont invited me to attend the festival Plaimont St Mont en Fête in Gascony, South West of France, it would have been foolish of me not to say yes. Not only did I need a break from grimy London but this event would be a great opportunity to visit a part of France that I hadn’t been to before. What’s more, as well as being a wine and food lover, I also have an interest in the carnivalesque. (To see some of my articles on this visit my website) So a weekend of wine, food and carnival: how could I refuse?

But having accepted my invitation and packed my bags I started to worry. One of the key phenomena of traditional carnival is that it is a special occasion, a time where normal social hierarchies don’t apply: the king becomes the fool and the fool becomes king etc. As the St Mont festival is only twenty years old and does not date back to the great carnival era, i.e. the Middle Ages, I worried that the essential ‘liminality’, the ‘other worldliness’ vital to the true carnival spirit, might not exist. After all the carnivalesque is not something that can be created, it happens naturally or not at all.
I worried further when I heard that Producteurs Plaimont own 98% of the Saint Mont appellation and that this festival is also a platform for showing their wines. I was prepared to be disappointed and to drag my way through a blatant wine promotion; the sort of event where promo staff, chosen for their nubile looks over their expertise, pour plastic thimbles of wine for an increasingly drunken crowd.

So you can imagine how delighted I was when standing amongst the throng in Saint Mont on Saturday morning I witnessed a Harley Davidson gang riding into the village and start chatting up a group of local, middle aged ladies, dressed as nuns, who responded with appropriately girlish-glee. Hurrah I thought, this is the true spirit of carnival, the inappropriate flirtation, the triumph of the human. Plaimont Saint Mont en Fête might not be historic but it is a true carnival. I could relax.
The festival centred around a street theatre performance which re-enacted the tale of how the Monastery in Saint Mont was established in the 11the century. To be honest it’s the sort of theatre that only really works if you know somebody in the cast, but I still appreciated the joie de vivre and the moments of incongruity that a group of people dressed as monks and peasants wandering about in the twenty-first century affords. Plus the costumes set the carnival tone and there was a general feeling of conviviality throughout the village.

So after a hearty round of applause it was off to the wine tastings. French wineries are often criticised for operating a closed-door policy.  I have sympathy for both sides in the debate. It’s a tall order to expect a hard working, self-employed, vigneron to break off a day’s work in order to show a couple of tourists, who may or may not buy, round their set up. But equally if you have travelled several 100/1000 miles in order to taste Madiran/St Mont in the place where it was grown, it is easy to feel short-changed by a less than welcoming wine grower.
snoggingnuns10The Plaimont St Mont en Fête is a great answer to the problem. There are tastings going on at the various wineries owned by the co-operative plus there are a number of marquees also offering wines. These tastings are manned by the wine growers and Producteur Plaimont staff, so if you ask a question, you will get a proper response. And while the atmosphere here is relaxed and lively there’s a serious side. Most people are leaving with at least one case of wine in the boot of their car. So this means that a) people are watching their alcohol in take and b) they are making some careful decisions about they actually spend their money on.

Our party ate lunch in another marquee, joining other revellers on long trestle tables and chatting with our neighbours in true carnival spirit. This being the South West we were served duck in various guises: duck soup, duck gizzard salad, duck maigret and best of all a very tasty duck foie gras, cooked in aluminium foil on the grill. (To see my South West recipes visit the Duck Soup recipe page above right).

We had another duck-fest in the evening at Le Vieux Logis restaurant in Aignan before trouping off to a couple of parties. It was here that my sense of carnival failed me. I’ve never been a fan of French rock music and fourth-rate, full-decimal cover versions of Pink Floyd and REM tested my largesse d’esprit beyond its limits, so I headed back to the hotel leaving my more robust colleagues behind. Overall though, a good time had been had by all.

Here are some of my favourite Producteurs Plaimont wine discoveries:

White Wines:

Saint Mont le Faîte 2006
This wine is a true showcase for South West white grapes. Made from 50% Gros Manseng, 20% Petit Courbu, 15% Arrufiac and 15% Petit Manseng. The nose smells of bruised apples and mint. The palate is creamy with a touch of mint, apricots and honey with terrific length. This is a high-brow white wine.

Rosé Wines:

Saint Mont Rosé de Campagne 2008
This is a serious pink. Made from the South West grape variety Tannat plus Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc it has a herbaceous/tea aroma and bone dry strawberry palate making it a great food as well as quaffing wine.
Red Wines:

Saint Mont, Rive Haute 2005
A savoury, rubber-smelling nose, uplifted by some pretty floral notes. This mix of Tannat, Pinnec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes make this a delicious, muscular and meaty wine. It has the bonus of an attractive lick of acidity and very long length. At four years old there’ll be plenty of life in this wine for years to come.

Saint Mont, Château de Sabazan 2006
A beautiful rich wine with lots of leathery, herbaceous notes on the nose and palate. Again this has that typical South West acidity that turns a blockbuster into an attractive and fresh wine.

Saint Mont, Le Monastre du Saint Mont 2006
A more mainstream version of Saint Mont, this wine is softer with a chocolatey note and cherry fruit. But it has a quirky touch of bees wax and violets on the nose and the typical South West freshness making it a true reflection of the region.

Saint Mont, Le Monastre du Saint Mont 2005
A year older and from a hotter vintage than the above, this wine is showing more coffee-chocolate liqueur flavours. These follow through on to the palate but the famed 2005 heat didn’t burn off all the Tannat acidity and the wine remains fresh and appealing.
knightlady4Sweet Wines:
We enjoyed these two sweet wines with a delicious selection of foie gras. Choosing the favourite was a tough call but at a pinch I think the 2002 made the better match.

Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, Saint Albert, 2007
A lovely, light and pretty sweet wine with a complex palate with almond, sultana, apricot and quince flavours. Very fresh.

Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, La Saint Sylvestre, 2002
Harvested on the 31st December from shrivelled grapes, this is a fabulous, mature, sweet wine. With caramel, linseed oil and ripe peach flavours on the palate. A real treat.

To find out more about Producteurs Plaimont visit:

Katrina’s website

The incredible true story of a two decade old cake and a quiet act of charity.

‘I have no idea where this mixture originated,’ says South African born Patricia Van Graan-Brun as she hands me a piece of her apple laden Friendship Cake. ‘I was given a piece of the dough by a lady called Josie Warburg, she has since died, but I’ve continued baking it nearly every week. So I’ve been making this same cake for twenty years now!’

Friendship cakes get going when someone makes a start culture. This means mixing flour, milk and sugar and leaving it for around ten days until it ferments. Then further flour, milk and sugar are added, the mixture is divided in two, one half is baked and the remaining dough becomes the new culture and left to ferment for another week when the process is repeated. As a jar of the culture can be divided and passed on to other people, who in turn pass it on, it becomes the baking equivalent of those chain letters that promise the recipient a fortune as long as each person in turn harangues ten of their closest friends. At least with Friendship Cakes there’s a higher chance of a reward, you are at least guaranteed to get something to have with a cup of tea.


Patricia’s cake has done more than just that though. She is seated at her familiar table after Quaker meeting in Forest Hill, South London and is dishing out pieces to a small crowd and taking payments of 50p in return. She is doing a brisk trade as clearly a morning spent in quiet reflection is hungry work.

Patricia tells me that every few months when she has made £100, she sends the takings off to the Quaker run Cape Town Peace Centre in South Africa. This centre has a decade long track record of results in improving life in that still troubled country. It runs courses and projects on subjects ranging from Young Women in Leadership, Alternatives to Violence and Youth at Risk.

The centre’s mission statement is:  ‘to build a non-violent society where:  diversity is celebrated; the energies of conflict are turned into a positive transforming power and where the democratic rights of every individual are respected, protected and pursued’.

This is clearly admirable work that deserves support and over the years sales of Patricia’s Friendship Cake have raised around £3,600, which goes a long way in South African rand.

However perhaps the reason why the cake sale has been successful is it is actually incredibly tasty. I’ve noticed before that the belly quickly rebels against largesse if it is force-fed piety. And I’m sure that even Quakers, who are a notably philanthropic bunch, wouldn’t keep on buying this cake if it was simply a charitable donation. Patricia adds Bramley apples, cinnamon and sultanas to her dough making a cake that is light, crumbly and slightly sweet.

‘I don’t know how it is possible that this mixture doesn’t die or go off. I don’t even understand how it works, it just keeps on going,’ she says with a smile as another 50p drops into the jar.

I am sure that it wouldn’t be too hard to find a charitable act that raises much more money and kicks up far more hoopla than this cake sale. But few fund-raisers are such a metaphor for the longevity and dignity of hope than this quietly nurtured twenty-year-old cake which creates a network between those who eat it, those who bake it and those who benefit from the money it raises.

To find out more about the work that the Cape Town Peace Centre carries out visit:

And just for the record, I am not a Quaker, although many members of my family are, however I occasionally attend meeting because I appreciate the calm, the sense of self-reliance and the pure optimism that the occasional Sunday morning meeting gives me.







Katrina’s Website

A pleasant evening at the Green and Blue in Dulwich gave me some great food and wine matching ideas but also a taste for the macabre. 

The evening couldn’t have been more pleasant, or the company more convivial, but as soon as I got home after an evening pairing wine and chocolate at the delightful Green & Blue Wine Bar in Dulwich, I sped to my bookshelf for a copy of Dram Stroker’s Dracula and looked for the most blood chilling passage that I could find. Why? How could an evening’s wine tasting possibly inspire this desire for the Victorian Gothic? Lets start at the beginning.

Kate Thal, gifted sommelier and owner of Green & Blue, is a big fan of matching chocolate with red wine. ‘The match isn’t mainstream yet, so it’s a great way to surprise people and introduce them to something new,’ she explains. To evangelise her message she’d generously invited a group of food bloggers round to taste her theory. (See links at bottom of this posting.)

We kicked off with what Kate referred to as a ‘no brainer’ match: Montemuzma’s milk chocolate with a great Pinot Noir from Central Otago, New Zealand, Amisfield 2006 (price £22). Packed with red fruits and a lightly oaky background, this wine could easily be described as a ‘modern classic.’ The chocolate was smooth and inevitable creamy, even to the point of being cloying, but then I’m not a big fan of milk chocolate, however paired with the wine the chocolate became fresh, clean and far more attractive.

chocolate_wineThe chocolate got more serious with the next pair. Montezuma’s ‘Dark Side’ chocolate was matched with Ridford Dale Merlot, Stellenbosch, South Africa, 2005 (price £13.50). The wine had plenty of dark fruit, peppery characteristics and well-structured tannins which made this a pretty sophisticated rendition of this frequently pedestrian grape variety. Together the wine and chocolate made a good savoury and intense match. Fellow food blogger, Stephen, of commented that these pairings seemed to work best when the tannins in the wine are on an equal footing with the percentage of cocoa solids. I agreed. For me the discord with this Merlot/dark chocolate match didn’t come from the wine or the cocoa solids, but the sugar in the chocolate, which jarred raspingly on my palate and was just one flavour sensation too many. The match also confirmed my view that when using chocolate in savoury cooking, (chilli con carne etc) it’s far better to go for cocoa powder than solid chocolate because the confectioner’s sugar will always be an unknown quantity in the mix.

The next wine was a Bandol, Domaine la Suffrene, which is made from 100% Mourvedre. It had a tremendous and typically Southern France garrigue (lavender, rosemary and thyme) aroma and a really dry and tarry palate. The chocolate was Montezuma’s dark chocolate which has 73% cocoa solids. There wasn’t a hint of anything sweet and sugary in this match instead it was as dark and brooding as a stormy November night. This was gourmet hardcore and definitely not for those with a delicate disposition. In a word it was Gothic and I loved it.

 The final match lightened the mood: Bera Moscato d’Asti, Canelli 2007 (price £15.00). This is probably the best Moscato d’Asti I’ve ever tasted. It was grapey, floral and very clean and lightly effervescent. Matched with white chocolate this made a match that was as pretty and pure as a Dracula victim. Something for all tastes then.

So to sum up, I agree with Kate that dark chocolate and red wine is a fabulous and unusual match and is definitely one to try at home. There’s scope to play around with Pinot Noir and Merlot but here’s what I suggest for a truly Gothic experience: get a bottle of Bandol, the above mentioned Domaine la Suffrene or Château de Pibarnon is another great example, make a batch of my beetroot crisps with chocolate chilli sauce, (recipe above right) draw the curtains, light some candles and settle down with a Gothic novel or film just be prepared to be very, very scared! And if you want to get in the mood, read on for a chilling extract from Dracula.


There he lay looking as if youth had been half-renewed, for the white hair and moustache were changed to dark iron grey; the cheeks were fuller, and the white skin seemed ruby-red underneath; the mouth was redder than ever, for on the lips were gouts of fresh blood, which trickled from the corners of the mouth and ran over the chin and neck. Even the deep, burning eyes seemed set amongst swollen flesh, for the lids and pouches underneath were bloated. It seemed as if the whole awful creature were simply gorged with blood; he lay like a filthy leech, exhausted with his repletion*

 And to think I thought red wine and chocolate would be a radical taste sensation…


 My fellow bloggers at the wine and chocolate evening were:


My thanks to Kate Thal and the Green & Blue Wine Bar  for such an interesting and unusual evening. 

*Bram Stroker Dracula Wordsworth Classics 1993

Katrina’s Website

A wine tasting of Loire wines made me dream of the past, but a glass of Coteaux du Layon inspired me to look forward to a sweet future. 

I’ve talked about the Proust effect on this blog before, but as I was reminded of this neuroscientific phenomena at a wine tasting organised by Loire Merchant Charles Sydney last week, I make no excuse for re-examining it.

The Proust Effect is a vivid involuntary memory triggered by an aroma. It is so dubbed in honour of Marcel Proust’s description of eating Madeleines in Remembrance of Things Past. I love the idea because it effectively allows me to be in two places at once and to wander about professional wine tastings looking vague. (I’m still working on an excuse for looking vague the rest of the time.)

Harvesting Cabernet Franc grapes.

Harvesting Cabernet Franc grapes

 At the Charles Sydney wine tasting I had a number of pleasing Proustian bi-polar moments. This is probably because I have an incredible soft spot for the Loire Valley in France, mainly because have enjoyed so many happy days there. If I drink a glass of Muscadet I remember sitting in front of a huge shellfish plateau in a restaurant in Nantes on the point of breaking open a spider crab with my bare hands; taste a Sancerre and I’m dancing at a harvest party to gypsy guitars; a Chinon and I’m crouched in front of a vine laden with perfectly ripe fruit, the morning sun just starting to burn off the early morning mist and a day of harvesting and laughter in front of me. Clearly these experiences make me predisposed to like Loire wines, so do these sentimental reveries prevent me from making any sort of impartial judgement? Absolutely not, because history re-written is an almost impossible challenge to beat. Lets start with the Muscadet.

Muscadet is still blighted by the curse of 1970s crimplene tanktop, it’s hard to assess anything popular in that decade without feeling you’ve wandered into an Abba revival. But Charles Sydney’s two Muscadet producers are so much more than a Mama Mia pastiche. These are serious wines which deserve to be savoured in the here and now.

Domaine de la Chauvinière 2008 has a hard-core Muscadet lovers iodine edge to it backed up with good lemony notes which make this a real blast of sea wind and a treat for anyone who loves salt. (Yeah, yeah, to health fanatics. Is salt the contemporary love that dare not speak its name?) sell this wine for £4.33 (not including VAT) which strikes me as being a bargain.

For a more mellow style Muscadet I enjoyed Le Fief Guerin, made by Jérôme Choblet of Domaine des Herbauges. This is richer than the above with a round sultana fruit note and a cleansing mineral/limestone on the finish which places its flavour profile firmly within the Muscadet family. The 2007 is available at Waitrose for £5.69 which again makes it good value.

As always things get a little more expensive when you head to the Central Vineyards. Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé producer Florian Mollet demonstrates why his wines have a natural the gun-powder aroma by bashing together a pair of flint stones then telling me to stick my head in a glass. It’s an effective trick which really shows-off the glorious mineral notes in his Sancerre, Roc de l’Abbaye 2008. This is a great glass of wine but the 2007 costs £12.49 a bottle at Oddbins. Bearing in mind I’m as skint as the next person with a fixed rate mortgage at the moment then I won’t be buying it especially if there are Muscadets as good as the above mentioned sitting next to it on the shop shelf.

Picking Sauvignon Blanc

Picking Sauvignon Blanc

Luckily there were also some reds to ease the recession pain and this being the Loire there were some great Cabernet Franc wines. My favourite Chinon was Les Blancs Manteaux, Vieilles Vignes 2006 from Domaine de la Noblaie. It was delicious with intense and dark smoky fruit and a chewy, yet supple, tannic finish.

Cabernet Franc also makes a showing at Jacky Blot’s well known winery, Domaine de la Butte. While the flagship wines from the top ‘La Haut de la Butte 2007’ and the mid-point ‘Mi-Pente 2007’ of the Bourgueil slope impressed me as always, the lower priced La Pied de la Butte 2008 really appealed because of fresh, clean and juicy fruit and a typically quirky Cabernet Franc touch of pencil shavings which add a really savoury note.

No Loire tasting would be complete without a look at some Chenin Blanc wines. The apogee here was a triplet of pudding wines from Coteaux du Layon made by Domaine Philippe Cady. The River Layon, one of the River Loire tributaries, is one of the few Loire vineyard regions that I haven’t visited, but tasting these wines made me want to pack my bags and head off immediately.

The trio were all from the Coteaux du Layon sub-region St Aubin with two single vineyard wines from Les Varennes and Volupté. All were from 2007 vintage. They all had a delicious and distinctive linseed oil perfume with a heady honey and orange palate. However they got progressively sweeter: the St Aubin had a still fresh 110g of residual sugar, Les Varennes had a concentrated and very naughty 170g but the Volupté had a teeth-jarring 220g which for me pushed it over the top.

Winemaker Alexandre Cady then produced a Volupté from the 1997 vintage. Turning back a decade this wine was made in a very different style. This was mature Chenin Blanc with a cinder toffee aroma, complex waxy, hazel nut and dry honey flavours with a very fresh clean finish. It wasn’t just the maturity which differentiated this wine though, the residual sugar was back down to 170g. Cady explained that at the time ‘people wanted less concentration’ but it begs the question how will the 2007 Volupté be in a decade. Or  to re-phrase the question is it worth buying some of this wine and squirreling it away? I suspect yes. The extra concentration will knit together and really show off the flavours.

At the end of a wine tasting which had inspired so much ‘Proust Effect’ retrospection it was good to be thinking of the future and wondering how these wines will evolve and where I’ll be when I try then next. It was good to turn away from the past and look forward and lose myself in future Loire travel plans and bottles of wines,  after all these are the things that memories are made of. 


Fellow Loire wine enthusiast Jim Budd was also at this tasting, inevitably he had a different take on events. To view his blog visit: